Water Knight lays down his lance

MOVING ON: Nick and Vi Knight are leaving the Branxholme Water Treatment Plant for the last time after 35 years today. 
MOVING ON: Nick and Vi Knight are leaving the Branxholme Water Treatment Plant for the last time after 35 years today. 

Nick Knight's boys don't dare walk into the office with muddy boots.

It's a rule at the Branxholme Water Plant - be on time, keep the plant clean and most importantly, shine your boots every morning.

It has been that way for 35 years but from today, that could all change.

Knight is retiring, four decades after he first started working for the city council.

"I think there is going to be a few dry sandwiches and a cup of cold tea on Monday."

He doesn't want a farewell party and he certainly doesn't want his face in the paper but he's come to the conclusion that people want to make sure he is really walking out the Branxholme gates for the last time.

"I didn't realise but a lot people want to make sure I actually leave."

After leaving school, a stint in Vietnam for the New Zealand Army, a few years at a service station and working as a carpenter at the city council, Knight began working for the water department in 1977.

Several years later the Branxholme manager died "out the back of the plant" and Knight took on the job.

It was a vital one too.

"If he got hit by a bus, we would have been out of water within 48 hours," colleague Chris Dawson says.

With two young children in tow and his wife Vi, Knight set about making the plant his empire.

"The incumbent still haunts the place and so will I."

Vi soon took up the role of cleaning the plant, something the boys at Branxholme said was done meticulously.

Arguably, Knight single-handedly provided the most vital service to the city, but he says it was Vi who was the real driver.

She put up with her husband working 24 hours a day for 29 years.

He was a sole operator and she took the calls because the house they lived in on-site shared the only phone line out there.

"Vi is just as much as part of the plant as I am," her husband said fondly.

"It was a wonderful little world," she adds.

His four employees, referred to as the boys and subjected to banter and jokes, were also crucial, Knight says.

"These jokers are crucial to the health and wellbeing of the city."

Family was also important at the plant, and Knight's son Peter had the important job of mowing the lawns from the age of seven.

His family soon became blurred with his colleagues, who despite being subjected to regular insults, he was very fond of.

The insults and banter helped contribute to his reputation at the plant as a grumpy old man, a reputation he worked hard to cultivate and maintain.

"I am the quintessential grumpy old man ... I have raised ignoring people to an art form."

His grandson made a sign for his car that Knight believes sums him up pretty well: "Grumpy granddad on board."

But while claiming to be grumpy, rough and mean, Knight also has a cheeky smile, a wicked sense of humour and clearly adores his wife.

"She's been known to call me treasure, whether she wants me buried or not, I don't know," he chuckles.

"Realistically your story shouldn't be about us, about a couple of wrinklys who are living in a place they have worked at is not news."

Indeed, he's hard to squeeze stories out of.

But there are many - the Christmas parties at the plant were so monumental they got banned, but the actual goings on are a closely guarded secret, Knight simply saying "those were the wild days".

As for highlights or mistakes, he's keeping mum on those too.

"Highlights? I don't think I have had one yet, it might be Monday."

But Knight still keeps up with the technology, runs around the plant and makes everyone shine their shoes before work.

"What's changed? We have got older and more wrinkly, we have got houses, where we used to be the only people on the road."

His two kids have multiplied and now there are five grandchildren and three great grandchildren to keep up with.

"My advice to people is to have their grandkids first because they are really enjoyable."

As he prepares to leave the plant he calls home, pack the final boxes to move into town and remove the plants from the garden, Knight hopes to slip out quietly the way he came in, with no fuss.

"This is our patch, this has been our empire for 35 years."

And he's looking forward to no longer having the responsibility for one of the city's most vital resources.

After today that becomes someone else's problem.

"There is no guarantees after Monday."

The Southland Times